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    Posted March 3, 2014 by
    Denver, Colorado
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    First Person: Your essays

    Crafting: The Cognitive Currency


    I knew my grandfather well. For over 40 years he was a friend and mentor. He fought in WWII, had a successful professional career, was a great family man, and a true gentleman. He lived to be 94. The last 10 years of his life were a slow descent into helplessness due to dementia. When he was about 85 he told me his biggest regret was not having any hobbies. He worked into his eighties, but when the work stopped he had nothing to keep his mind active, and this made him nervous. He told me that your brain is just like your body: “Use it or lose it.”


    There is abundant research showing that continuing to challenge your brain, interacting with others, and working with your hands has long-term benefits from a cognitive and health perspective. While scientists have yet to discover an anti-aging solution, studies show that you can slow the cognitive effects of aging in ways that are simpler and much more enjoyable than you might think.


    Enter crafting. By “crafting” I mean the act of engaging in learning and “making” which covers a broad range of hobbies and disciplines. That’s right, challenging your brain and being skilled with your hands may help keep your mind alert, even as you age. Crafting activities can help reduce your odds of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) by 30-50%, building a buffer against dementia.[i] Plus, engaging in crafts like photography, quilting, knitting and drawing may improve your neuronal reserve, which helps the brain to remain flexible and adaptive.[ii]


    By building and storing this “cognitive currency,” you’re slowing the development of age-related diseases and keeping your mind sharp. Think of it as another way to save for retirement. Essentially, the more of this currency you save and store, the more you can ultimately afford to lose as you age.


    There are a number of activities that have been shown to have cognitive benefits, from knitting and quilting to drawing. Plus, crafting activities and memory training that help ease age-related conditions can have benefits that last up to ten years.[iii]


    In addition to the cognitive advantages, studies show that engaging in crafts can have significant health benefits. The meditative effects of learning and practicing crafts promote relaxation and reduce anxiety and depression, two factors that have been proven to cause cardiovascular disease and a host of other ailments.


    As Baby Boomers age, these types of activities can serve as non-medicinal therapeutic options, decreasing the risk of age-related medication complications. Perhaps most exciting is that cognitive health can help lead to increased independence, thereby potentially decreasing the pain and financial burden of assisted care. It’s heartening to know that Americans may be able to remain more independent, even into old age.


    Our students at Craftsy, which offers online classes in everything from quilting and painting to knitting and cake decorating, tell us they’ve seen these effects firsthand. Laura Hofmann Lightner, a 52-year-old quilting student in Gainesville, Florida, had a stroke at the age of 46 and used quilting as an outlet during the recovery process. Quilting has been a mental exercise for her: “You have to pick out fabric that coordinates. You have to pick out patterns … if you don’t use it [your brain], you lose it.”


    “After my stroke, I couldn’t remember anything I read,” Laura said. Online crafting classes “really helped me recover from the stroke.”


    Nancy Coven, a 65-year-old sewing student from Knoxville, Tennessee, believes the act of “making” really helps her ease stress and fight depression. “The only thing I have ever found to blow away the blues is keeping busy, and there is a real satisfaction to creating something.”


    Nancy is also an avid knitter, an activity that she calls her “glass of wine,” as it’s been an incredible stress reliever for her. “I was in the hospital with my wonderful, fabulous husband for nine weeks watching him die of leukemia. Knitting saved me,” she said. “I have always been involved in some sort of creative endeavor. I think I have an active, nervous disposition and keeping my hands busy is very therapeutic.”


    Exciting research is continuing on the causal relationship between crafting and wellness, but the hypothesis is clear—meaningful, productive activities and hobbies may lead to a longer, happier life, with mental, physical, and aging benefits. Millions of passionate makers around the country are kick-starting these effects of crafting by leveraging educational resources (both online and in person), engaging in artistic hobbies, and reaping the benefits of the social elements inherent in these activities. As our country continues to age, we’ll look forward to seeing how the “Maker Revolution” may improve the aging process.


    I only wish we had access to this research and technology driven solutions 20 years ago, and I may have been able to convince an old WWII vet that it was worth taking classes on cooking, sewing, or painting.


    John Levisay is a Co-founder and CEO of Craftsy.com


    [i] Geda, Yonas E., Hillary M. Topazian, Lewis A. Roberts, Rosebud O. Roberts, David S. Knopman, V. Shane Pankratz, Theresa J.H. Christianson, Bradley F. Boeve, Eric G. Tangalos, Robert J. Ivnik, and Ronald C. Petersen. “Engaging in Cognitive Activities, Aging and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Population-Based Study.” Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 23(2) (2011): 149-154. Web. DOI: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.23.2.149.

    [ii] Gutman, Sharon A. and Victoria P. Schindler. “The Neurological Basis of Occupation.” Occupational Therapy International 14(2) (2007): 71-85. Web. DOI: 10.1002/oti.225.


    [iii] Cire, Barbara. “Cognitive Training Shows Staying Power: NIH-Funded Trial Shows 10-year Benefit in Realms of Reasoning, Speed.” National Institute on Aging. Web. 13 January 2014. <http://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2014/01/cognitive-training-shows-staying-power>.

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